Mind of the Musulman: Islam Under the Last Abbassids
Islam under the last Abbassids — The Muslim Empire on the road to ruin — The Arab conquerors, drowned in the midst of subject peoples and incapable of governing them, lose their war-like qualities by contact with them — Good-for-nothing Caliphs, reduced to the role of ‘rois fainéants’, are obliged in self-defense to have recourse to foreign mercenaries, who soon become their masters — Provinces in obedience to nationalist sentiment break away from the Empire — The last Abbassid Caliphs retain possession of Bagdad only — Their dynasty dies out in ignominy.
FROM the death of Wathiq (846), the Muslim Empire of the East moves forward to its fall. The general causes of this may be noted. The Arab conquerors, swamped in a flood of subject nations, submitted to their influence. This was the more difficult to avoid as in imposing their religion on the conquered they thereby raised them to their own level in regard to status. Every foreigner on conversion became the equal of the conqueror, enjoying the same rights and the same privileges. But the greater part of the subject peoples, the Syrians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Persians, were more cultivated, better educated, more civilized, and more refined than the Arabs, and were alone capable of assuming the different functions of administration. They alone possessed the intellectual culture, the experience and the knowledge necessary for the organization of conquered provinces. They thus became the real masters, and it was they who practically controlled the power. At Damascus, the Syrians. had governed in the name of the Ommeyads; at Bagdad, the Barmecid ministers, of Persian origin, ruled on behalf of the Abbassids.
As the new converts had kept their mentality and their customs, and as they were in far greater numbers, they imposed them on the Arabs to such an extent that, under the Muslim label, the local manners survived; that is to say Greco-Persian manners, the manners of a people already corrupted by the vices of decadence.
In this atmosphere of hyper-refined civilization, the conquerors lost their warlike qualities. As they were devoid of the most elementary intellectual culture, they could not exercise any sort of directive influence on a population superior to them; they were not masters but pupils; they learned and they copied; and naturally, by a very human tendency, they assimilated especially the vices; they became effeminate and corrupted.
By their military success, by their power and their wealth, the Abbassid Caliphs had inspired the neighbouring nations with a fear that secured them a long period of peace. This repose was fatal to them. The Bedouins, created for fighting and a rough life, lost their boldness and vigor. The prodigious wealth resulting from the tribute imposed upon conquered nations and from the revenues of the conquered provinces accomplished their corruption.
Finally, the abuse of a power almost without limits had weakened the Caliphs. Surrounded by a luxury till then unheard of, their heads turned by the base flattery of courtiers; disposing, at their pleasure, of human lives, they became despots only comparable to the Roman Emperors of the fall.
The last Abbassids were notorious for their cruelty, their vices, their irresponsibility, and their incapability. In the defects of these men, degraded by the abuse of pleasure, without character and without energy, we recognize the signs of the degeneration of a race played-out, worn out too soon by too abrupt a change in its conditions of existence, and corrupted by contact with too advanced civilizations. In less than three centuries the Arabs fell to the level of the Byzantines and the Persians.
The years that followed the death of Wathiq were one long crisis of anarchy. Popular risings and intrigues in the palace rendered the power of the Caliphs precarious; and they strained every nerve to get the utmost of enjoyment out of their ephemeral royalty by giving themselves up to the vilest debauchery. Their court hastened to enrich themselves by the most scandalous exactions. The intellectuals adopted the vain subleties of Byzantinism; everything became a matter for cavil, science, philosophy, and especially religion.
The Muslim doctrine was complicated by all the hypotheses of the Greek philosophers and by every superstition of the vanquished peoples. It was a chaos of beliefs; every day some new sect appeared only to add to the existing confusion. The one would claim that the universe is infinite, which is a serious heresy; another would demand mathematical proofs before it would believe; yet another, seeing that it was impossible to discover truth among so many religious doctrines that contradicted one another, preached agnosticism; certain rhetoricians admitted the existence of God and the mission of the Prophet, but rejected the other dogmas; others more circumspect denied the mission of the Prophet.
Thus there was no religious unity, any more than political unity. Each province, having preserved its customs, considered itself as an isolated State; certain of them showed a tendency to break away from the Empire. Since 750, Spain, and later the Maghreb, had set the example of this emancipation, and as their revolt had remained unpunished, owing to the weakness of the later Abbassids, other provinces, notably Khorassan, had followed their lead. The Muslim Empire was decomposing with the same rapidity as it had been constituted.
Al Moutawakil (846-861), Wathiq's successor, begins the series of incapable sovereigns. He was a sickly, perverted, and unbalanced creature, who displayed the worst aberrations. He surrounded himself with fierce wild beasts, to whom his favorites had to pay court. An eccentric and a monomaniac, in constant fear of assassination, he saw enemies everywhere seeking to destroy him. Haunted by mad hallucinations, he committed abominable crimes: one day he caused one of his viziers to be burnt alive; on another, he summoned the officers of the palace to a banquet and had them all massacred. Nevertheless, he was a man of refinement and a dilettante, loving beautiful verses and eloquent discourses. He was the Nero of Islam. His son, Al Moutanser, assassinated him and seized power (861), but he died soon afterwards, worn out by debauchery (862). A grandson of Caliph Al Motassem succeeded him, borne to power by the Turkish guard. From this date the order of succession was no longer observed; henceforth it was the mercenaries of the palace who made and unmade the Caliphs.
Since 842, under the reign of Al Motassem, as the Arabs, grown wealthy and weak, showed some reluctance to expose their lives, it had been found necessary to enrol prisoners of war; those from Turkestan having shown themselves the best soldiers, it was from them that the palace guards were selected. These mercenaries, at first the instruments of domination in the hands of the monarch, soon imposed their own will; it was a repetition of what had happened in Rome at the time of the fall.
The foreign troops, subjected to a rough discipline during the Caliphate of Wathiq, set themselves free on his death. It was they who proclaimed Al Moutawakil; then, finding him too mean, they helped his son, Al Mustanser, to get rid of him. Finally, they compelled the latter to exclude his brothers from the succession and to nominate Al Moustain Billah as his successor.
From that time onward the Caliphs pass like puppets — the Turkish troops, paid by a pretender, raise him to power, then, having got their wages, they depose him to earn the bribes of the next one.
Al Moustain reigned three years (862-866), and was replaced by his brother, Al Moutazz (866-869). The latter, soon deposed, was succeeded by a son of Wathiq, Al Mouthadi Billah (869-870). The mercenaries killed him because he wanted to bring them under some sort of discipline. A second brother of Al Moustaln, Al Moutamid, was raised to power (870-892). He tried to get the better of the general anarchy, but the task was quite beyond his powers.
The provinces too hastily conquered formed a whole without unity. The subject populations accepting Islam and thereby enjoying the same rights as the conqueror, absorbed the Arab element. The Arabs, on the other hand, incapable of exerting any directive control, submitted to the influence of foreign manners and customs. Regional nationalism asserted itself, often encouraged by ambitious governors who dreamed of emancipation; whilst another sentiment urged them to revolt — the desire to escape payment of the tribute.
Following Spain, Khorassan had broken with the central power; and Tabarestan followed its example in 864. In 870, a certain Yakoub-es-Soffar — Yakoub the coppersmith, so-called because his father had been of that trade — had raised the standard of revolt in Sedjestan, and had then taken possession of Khorassan and Tabarestan, thus carving out for himself a small independent kingdom of which the principal towns were Meru and Nichabour. He was even aiming at the Caliphate. To get rid of him, AI Moutamid recognized his sovereignty over the provinces he was holding (877), an act of weakness that served to encourage other ambitious spirits.
Ismael-ibn-Saman, governor of Khowaresm and of Mawarannahar, revolted. An adventurer took possession of Bassorah by the aid of negro troops from Zanzibar, and held out there until 882. Ahmed-ben-Thoulou, a freed Turk, to whom the government of Egypt and Syria had been entrusted, refused to pay the tax (877), and declared himself independent. The Empire was falling into liquidation; there was no energetic sovereign to re-establish order. The Caliphs passed without leaving any trace but the memory of their debauchery and incapacity: Al Mouthadhid (892-902), Al Mouktafi (902-908), Al Mouktadir (908-982), Al Qahir (982-934), Al Radhi (984-940).
Jezireh separated itself from the Empire and formed a small State of which Mosul was the capital.
The Turkish troops, now all powerful, pursued their intrigues. Al Qahir was imprisoned by the palace guards, who put out his eyes and then threw him into the street, where he was reduced to begging his bread.
Al Radhi, fearing the dangers of power, handed over all authority to an Emir-el-Omra, Emir of Emirs, and lived as a roi fainéant. This was a fresh cause of trouble, for the ambitious intrigued for the Emirate. The head of the Turkish troops led a revolt, besieged the Caliph in his palace and compelled him to recognize him as Emir (940). From this time onward, it was the Emirs who governed — like the mayors of the palace — the Caliph had no longer any authority.
Under the reign of Al Mouttaki (940-944), who succeeded Al Radhi, Armenia, Georgia, and the small provinces on the borders of the Caspian Sea broke away from the Empire. The districts around Bagdad did the same, so that there remained nothing for the Caliphs beyond the city itself. The sovereign had become a laughing-stock in the hands of the Emir-el-Omra, or rather of the Turkish troops who set up one of their officers as Emir. One of the latter condemned Al Mouttaki to death, accusing him of having intrigued against him (944), and proclaimed in his place Al Moustakfi.
The citizens of Bagdad, exasperated at being governed by Turkish mercenaries who squeezed them, revolted, and summoned to their aid the Bouids, who had carved out for themselves a small State out of the former Persian Empire. The Bouids drove the Turks out of Bagdad, and one of them, Moez-ed-Doulat, proclaimed himself Emir-el-Omra (945) and nominated Al Mouti, a member of his family, as Caliph (945-974).
More than ever, it was the Emir who really governed; the nominal Caliphs pass like shadows: Al Tai (974-991), Al Qadir Billah (991-1031), Al Qaim Bi-Amr-Illah (1081-1075). Some of them, to fill up their idle time, devoted themselves to letters, others to debauchery.
Bagdad, ruined by palace intrigues and popular outbreaks, lost its influence and prosperity; deprived of its commerce and of the provincial revenues, it was a head without a body. But life revived elsewhere: in Egypt, in Syria, in Persia, and in India, where representatives of the great local families wielded the sovereignty.
The last Abbassids succeeded each other through the intrigues of the Emirs; Al Mouqtadi (1075-1094), Al Moustadhir (1094-1118), Al Moustarshid (1118-1135), Al Raschid (1185-1186), Al Mouqtafi (1186-1160), Al Moustanji (1160-1170), Al Mousthadi (1170-1180), Al Nasir (1180-1225), Al Dahir (1225-1226), Al Moustansir (1226-1243), Al Moustasim (1248-1258). The last was strangled by the orders of Houlagan, when this Mogul sovereign took possession of Bagdad.
The Abbassid dynasty came to an end in ignominy. Incapable of either government or administration, devoid of all political intelligence, preoccupied by the sole pursuit of pleasure, the Arab sovereigns were only able to play their part by allowing themselves to be guided by foreigners. All of them, even the most
brilliant, were but puppets in the hands of Syrian or Persian ministers who pulled the strings. As soon as this help ceased, their power collapsed.
After all, the splendor of the rule of the Ommeyads and of the earlier Abbassid Caliphs was nothing but the reflection of Greco-Syrian and Greco-Persian civilization. The Arabs could not hinder the ultimate expansion of this civilization, but they did not contribute to its brilliancy. It was the Syrians, the Greeks, and the Persians, Islamized by force, who, in spite of the barbarism of the conqueror, produced the effort that has been wrongly ascribed to the Arabs; and this effort was paralysed, and then completely blocked, when Muslim doctrine, fixed by the doctors of the faith and made absolutely immutable, stopped all innovation, all progress, all adaptation.
It was in the second century of the Hegira that this deadly work was accomplished; and it is from that date that the decadence of the Empire of the Caliphs began. Insensible at first, because of the residual culture of the conquered, who in spite of their forcible conversion to Islam, had kept their mentality and their intellectual baggage, it became more accentuated in the succeeding generations, in proportion as they, brought up in the narrow prison of Muslim dogma, lost their national qualities.
Islam was not a torch, as has been claimed, but an extinguisher. Conceived in a barbarous brain for the use of a barbarous people, it was — and it remains — incapable of adapting itself to civilization. Wherever it has dominated, it has broken the impulse towards progress and checked the evolution of society.